Anatole France, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist, observed that “any woman who finds herself alone with a man, thinks him an idiot if he does not make a pass at her”. He was writing, of course, about women in Paris at the end of the 19th century, the Belle Époque, not those in London in the 21st; and it was almost certainly a self-serving exaggeration. It is hard to believe that a woman at any period in history, or for that matter a man, likes to be propositioned, by word and particularly by deed, by someone she or he finds unattractive; or even by someone attractive if there is no promise of even a fleeting emotional commitment.
In the present state of moral confusion that has followed the triumph of the 1960s sexual revolution and the collapse of Christian morality in Britain, Catholics have the advantage of our Church’s clear and unambiguous teaching: sexual intercourse is always sinful unless it take place between a man and a woman within a canonically recognised marriage, and then open to the transmission of human life. “Every baptised person,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “is called to lead a chaste life” (2394). “Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices” (2396).
There is evidence that many Catholics disregard some of these strictures, particularly when it comes to sex before marriage and contraception. Moreover, they appear to do so with a clear conscience since few now go to Confession. The “fact on the ground” seems to be that, among both Catholics and non-Catholics, 99 per cent of human sexual activity in Britain today falls outside the parameters of what is morally licit.
It was probably always so. Satan is the Prince of this World and, in the guise of Baal, the god of fertility, ensures that sexual desire in his subjects is so powerful that, without a considerable infusion of the grace of God, it is virtually irresistible. Great saints such as St Charles Borromeo and St John Vianney tried to protect their flocks from temptation by forbidding dancing – to no avail.
It was no different when popes had political as well as moral authority: they themselves often set a bad example, and sexual promiscuity was rife in Rome. “If we were too strict, we would lose them,” a priest told a visitor to the Eternal City in the late 18th century. I suspect that, when it comes to pre-marital relationships (what the Catechism condemns as “trial marriages”) a priest in Britain today would say much the same. And it is difficult for the Church to take the high moral ground when it has grim scandals of its own.
Thus, when it comes to sexual morality, writers step in where the clergy fear to tread. The late Christopher Hitchens used to boast of his prodigious feats of self-abuse; and the hero of the novel I happen to be reading at present, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, follows suit as a matter of course. I have no such scenes in the novels I have written over the years, but some have been criticised for their graphic depictions of sexual encounters between men and women. My defence has always been that, for the generation which came of age in the 1960s, the “re-setting” of sexual morality has been of great significance, and therefore could not be ignored. I have tried to show how, while sexual love in the context of a happy marriage is one of the greatest of God’s gifts, the advent of the contraceptive pill and freely available abortion, which broke the link between sex and procreation, has more often led to misery than to joy.
Among both men and women today there seems to be some confusion as to what we want from one another. Vast industries exist to enhance the attractiveness of women, but perhaps men are vain to think that this is for their benefit. Often, one suspects, it is principally for women to be admired by other women, or simply to feel good about themselves when they look in the mirror.
The market for male cosmetics is said to be as large as those for women. Men, too, want to be considered attractive, sometimes from narcissism but also because they want to appeal to women. The mutual attraction of the sexes is the motor for the perpetuation of the human race – an inescapable fact of our condition – and it is hard for a man not to go thither when subject to a come-hither look. The line between gallantry and harassment is sometimes hard to draw, but that a man can imagine, in the absence of a come-hither look, that touching a knee or squeezing a buttock might ignite the desire of a woman seems to me obtuse; and what kind of sad, degraded thrill can he derive from touching the body of an unknown woman in a lift?
All in all, the relations between the sexes have become both socially and morally perilous. Celibacy is to be recommended for would-be saints.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer